With its idyllic perch on a harbor inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, adroitly manages both the risks and rewards of life by the sea. Residents enjoy the temperate conditions common to southern climes while wrestling with the wet-weather consequences of its ocean neighbor. Statistics revealed by city leaders recently showed that by 2040, Charleston’s water conveyance systems will be impacted by elevated waters on 180 days of each year – a stark data point for an exposed city coping with a stormy and rising sea.
From Charleston to Houston and Chicago to California, diverse factors are pressuring government and utility leaders to consider the long-term health and resilience of their water management systems. In the West, arid conditions and frequent drought cycles challenge supplies and force innovative alternative water supply and recycled water solutions. In the Midwest and Northeast, heavy rain events challenge sewer overflow systems and often put water in the basements of homes and on the floors of businesses. Along the Gulf and Eastern Coasts, increasingly frequent extreme storms are outmatching legacy conveyance strategies, while sea level rise and seawater intrusion pose concerns for low-lying cities along the Atlantic.
Increasingly frequent extreme storms are outmatching legacy conveyance strategies.
Major planning and construction projects are underway in these regions to address the near-term threats of increasingly common flooding events and to proactively plan for long-term resilience. In Charleston, a massive large-diameter tunneling project to increase stormwater management capacity is being followed by programmatic efforts to holistically create resilience. Besieged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston recently announced a feasibility study to determine whether a largescale tunneling system could help it cope with future storms. To the north, recently completed phases of the massive, years-in-the-making Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) is helping Chicago more effectively handle the combined sewer overflows generated by heavy rains.
Tunnels, which often are proposed under larger programs for population centers, are advantageous because they remove floodwaters from problem areas and improve mobility by keeping streets free of water. They generally do so without requiring significant property acquisition or causing damage to environmental habitats. Black & Veatch is the construction manager for the city of Dallas for the largest stormwater tunnel in Texas – a 5-mile-long tunnel more than 30 feet in diameter that will collect and convey floodwater, significantly reduce flooding south of the tunnel, and protect East Dallas businesses and residents from flood damages.
Such programmatic approaches to water system and flood resilience grab headlines for their size and scale, but they also appear to be glaring exceptions to the rule. Black & Veatch’s 2018 Strategic Directions: Water Report survey shows that respondents often view resilience on a project-by-project basis that approaches the topic through a near-term prism that neglects the potential benefits of systems integration and long-term effectiveness (Figure 1).
Vulnerable to a host of well-known challenges — changing climate conditions, aging infrastructure, growing populations, increasingly complex water quality issues, limited resources and other economic stressors — utilities, agencies and municipalities end up tackling issues individually (many times driven to action by a weather event) without an overarching plan.
Figure 1: How is your organization approaching resilience-associated planning and/or improvements?
Rise of the Chief Resilience Officer
Current estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate the combined costs of 2017 hurricanes Harvey and Maria at $215 billion, ranking as the second and third most expensive storms on record, respectively. Flooding in Asia and South America added to the global bill, bringing the disaster toll into staggering focus and sparking urgent conversations about the long-term mitigation of risks associated with aging or schematically outdated water conveyance systems.
Not too many years ago, suggesting to a major coastal city that it should deploy infrastructure meant to withstand a once-a-millennium flood event might have produced surprised looks. Now, not only are those cities looking at extreme scenarios, they are looking harder at who within the organization is focused on such events. The survey results show room for improvement. About 42 percent of respondents reported having no one assigned specifically to resilience, while about 58 percent reported resilience as being among a position’s various duties. While none of the surveyed organizations had a position dedicated to the topic of resilience, there are emerging examples as follows (Figure 2).
Some cities that once tacked strategic resilience planning onto the job description for broader managerial roles are devoting new positions to resilience alone – directly addressing a potential weakness demonstrated in the Black & Veatch report survey. In South Florida, multiple jurisdictions have begun appointing Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) to take leadership roles in managing long-term resilience-focused water infrastructure strategy. The city of Miami, Miami Beach, Broward County, Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County all have CROs. After Superstorm Sandy battered New York City in 2012, the city created the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which aggressively has pursued projects aimed at shielding Manhattan from the effects of major storms and climate change. For instance, the office has started work on the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which seeks to use a large-scale system of levees and walls to create a flood-protection zone while providing increased access to the city’s waterfronts.
Figure 2: Does your organization have a position identified to advance the topic and practices of resilience?
Asset Management and Risk
CROs likely understand that their job involves asset management and that any planning for resilience starts with an asset vulnerability assessment. Better asset management ranked highest among factors critical to integrated planning programs, according survey responses (Figure 3).
Resilience in many ways is a means to adequately identify and manage risk. Utilities or jurisdictions with robust planning mechanisms identify risks and vulnerability, while including contingency planning and establishing mitigation strategies and evaluations of how future conditions may change and affect the organization. An important distinction exists between having contingency plans for dealing with predicted events and adaptive strategies aimed at reducing future risks and the consequences of vulnerabilities.
Acknowledging the importance of resilience is one task. Determining how to finance it — in a do-more-with-less environment — is quite another. Having a common approach to prioritize investments that will improve environmental, customer, health and safety, financial and resilience factors as investment drivers is essential. Public engagement and communication of that plan also are essential to demonstrate to customers the dangers of doing nothing.
Figure 3: Which of the following do you feel are most beneficial in helping your organization overcome the barriers that prevent you from having stormwater/integrated planning programs?
Resilience as the New Sustainability
Though formal plans may be slow in coming, resilience concepts in recent years have resonated with water organization leaders, who now attach to them the kind of reverence once associated with sustainability. Just as sustainability has multiple meanings to multiple stakeholders — financial sustainability, environmental sustainability, etc., — so too does resilience. But the storms of recent years have given “resilience” in a weather and climate context special significance. As the 2017 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report noted, “A mounting focus on system resilience is clearly communicated through the increasing prioritization of climate change as a concern. Utilities are concerned with protecting assets from natural disasters and storms.”
One year later — a short span that brimmed with once-in-a-lifetime storm events — has only added to the urgency around resilience and how water conveyance infrastructure can be developed and managed to rebound from system shocks. Many cities are, so far, sitting out such planning because of understandable concerns over cost.
Other cities, however, are flipping the question on its head: Can they afford the costs of anything other than a holistic approach to planning and readiness?